Doomed to fail: too many marketers can’t distinguish between strategy and tactics

Helen Coetzee looks at why the inability of many marketers to understand the difference between strategy and tactics is not only failing clients, but also marketers themselves.

We have a big problem in marketing. It’s something many of us are afraid to admit and some aren’t even aware we have. It’s a problem that crosses pay grades and is one of the biggest factors in failed campaigns.

Too many marketers don’t know the difference between marketing strategy and marketing tactics. Without a sound strategy, marketers cannot be truly effective. Yet time and time again you see campaigns full of cookie cutter tactics with no strategy underpinning them. This failure to define the term means many marketers don’t know how to actually build a strategy.

It’s a problem that isn’t only limiting the success of campaigns, it’s also failing a generation of younger marketers who deserve much more from their leaders.

Campaigning in hope

In essence, strategy is the vision that drives the campaign to hit its ambitions, goals and objectives. Whereas tactics are the tasks you action each day – write blogs, post social content, run events or send emails – that implement the strategy.

But because a significant amount of marketers don’t understand strategy, they don’t take the critical steps needed to build one, or to understand the defined strategy that is meant to underpin everything they do. So they are effectively handcuffing themselves before so much as an email has been fired out in hope.

Before I outline the three steps needed to produce an effective marketing communications strategy, first I want to explain why it’s so vital that all marketers – whether interns or CMOs, grasp the concept.

Create a team of marketers, not a team of workers

I’ve worked in marketing teams in the past where strategy was seen as something only senior staff need worry about. Junior staff were simply the foot soldiers expected to unquestionably follow the orders of the wise generals.

But this is flawed thinking. Firstly, it limits the personal growth of young staff who management should be trying to make into the next generation of leaders.

Secondly, a firm grasp of strategy can enable a team member to implement much more effective tactics. This is especially the case if you are asking someone to create content and messaging to fuel a campaign. The more they understand a strategy, the more they will be able to craft content and messaging that aligns with a marketing communication objective; improving both its effectiveness for the target audience as well as the internal workflow as less content and copy revisions will be required.

In time, you’ll also soon find that junior members of the team will be able to contribute to creating or adapting a campaign strategy, which can only be a positive for your organisation’s marketing efforts. Why have a team of doers, when you can have a team of doers and thinkers?

Three steps to successful strategy

Every campaign needs solid foundations. While past campaigns and data of course inform a new campaign, it isn’t enough to simply copy a template that worked well before. A loose approach to research shows a loose grasp of strategy.

Step one for good strategy is accurately identifying your audience and target market. This needs to be as narrow as possible. For example, it isn’t enough to say you are targeting senior managers in manufacturing companies. You need to specify the size of the organisation (by annual revenue and/or staff numbers), specific ‘sub-sectors’ within manufacturing, location, job function/areas of responsibility, likely job titles etc. You need a precise target on the dart board to be aiming at. This accuracy is particularly important when working with a limited marketing budget – and let’s face it – all of us feel our marketing budgets are limited!

Once you have drawn up your specific target audience, you need to ask yourself (with brutal honesty) what it is you can do for them. What is it that is unique and valuable that they will pay you to provide and continue to pay you to provide? Why do you exist? If you don’t pin this down, then you don’t have a strategy.

Finally, what are your SMART marketing communications objectives? They must be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely. You must clearly define what success looks like.

The right time for the ‘how’ and the ‘when’

Once you have these three strategy pillars in place, you can confidently determine the ‘how and the when’ of reaching your target audience with the right message through the right channels, and at the right time. Actions required for successful tactical delivery become obvious once a solid marketing communications strategy is in place.

A sound strategy for all

Never deliver tactics unless there is a strong strategy leading the way, and everyone delivering your marketing communications has a good understanding of the strategy.

Some of the best strategies I’ve seen can be communicated in 15 minutes to stakeholders at all levels of experience and responsibility. Being backed up by solid research and analysis, and allowing the necessary time to think things through ensures your tactics will be ‘on target’ to achieve the results and marketing ROI you need.